Losing any loved one is difficult. But what hope can we look to when a child is lost to sudden tragedy?
A close friend of mine lost his son last December.
Although Richard and I first met some years ago, it wasn't until February of last year that we really got to know each other.
Every February I spend three weeks at the Ambassador Bible Center (ABC) where I teach classes on the books of Daniel and Revelation and give an overview of where we are now in Bible prophecy. ABC is located at the home office of the United Church of God, publisher of The Good News, just outside Cincinnati, Ohio.
Although I am a regular writer for the Church's publications and have to use a computer almost every day of my life, I must confess to being somewhat technologically challenged. So I needed Richard's help (Richard is the information technology manager for the United Church of God).
My two one-hour classes began each weekday at 8:30 a.m. I usually turned up at Richard's office an hour earlier desperately in need of technical support just so I'd be able to give my classroom presentation. While he was helping me, we would talk. A mutually rewarding friendship developed.
Traveling to Africa and England
It turned out we had a great deal in common. We both came from families with six boys and no girls. I am the oldest of the six in my family; he is the fourth in his. We both married about the same time, and he had three children who arrived in the same birth order as my own—girl, boy, girl.
As I got to know Richard, I learned that his wife Emma also worked in the church office, in mail processing. I learned, too, that Richard and Emma had just gone through a severe two-year trial battling Emma's cancer. It was only then that they were emerging from that ordeal with greater hope for the future.
As Emma was recovering, we invited them to visit us in Michigan. It was clear that they are a loving and devoted couple. Their love and devotion to each other has helped them greatly through the many difficulties and challenges of life.
In our conversations, Richard would often ask about my experience overseas and the responsibilities I now have that require travel. He expressed such an interest in Ghana and England, the two countries I visit most frequently, that I invited him to come along with me on a future trip.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving we both left for a 10-day visit to Ghana followed by a few days in England. Richard loved Ghana and its people and was very helpful to many on the trip, solving their computer problems and helping out wherever he could.
After Ghana, we visited a congregation of the United Church of God in northern England, the closest one to where all my brothers live. After the church service, we drove over to see my brothers. He really appreciated the opportunity to get to know my family.
Sixteen days after leaving the United States, we were back. The following day, as one of our colleagues at the office put it, "Richard was beaming. He was so full of the trip." I was pleased to hear that.
Then, sudden tragedy struck.
An unbearable loss
Barely 24 hours after arriving back in the United States, Richard phoned me at 2:17 a.m. I remember the exact time, as I looked at my alarm clock when the phone rang. I knew at that time of the night it had to be bad news. And it was. Distraught, he told me that his 22-year-old son Ryan had been taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.
An hour later, when the phone rang again, I knew it could only be the worst news a parent can hear. Ryan had died. Richard and Emma's only son had passed away in the early hours of Thursday, Dec. 16, without regaining consciousness.
For days it was all I could think about. We had spent so much time talking about our children that I deeply felt this tragic news. But what I was feeling was nothing compared to the pain and suffering that Richard and Emma were going through.
Ryan's death led to my changing my sermon subject two days later. I wanted to share with the members of my congregation the good news of God's promise of eternal life. It wasn't something that was new to them, but the timely words were an encouragement to all.
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is "a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . ." (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
In the same book we also read that "the dead know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Contrary to popular belief, people do not go in conscious awareness to heaven or hell or purgatory when they die. When people die, they are really dead—they are unconscious with no more powers of thinking and reasoning.
But does this mean that there is no hope?
God's promise to overcome death
Job asked this all-important question: "If a man dies, shall he live again?" He also answers it: "All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee . . ." (Job 14:14-15, King James Version, emphasis added throughout).
Job knew that he could look forward to a change to eternal life, but he also knew that it was a long way off. In fact, Job is still waiting, thousands of years later.
Writing in the New Testament, the apostle Paul looked forward to the future time of change, when some will receive eternal life.
"For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
Note that "the dead in Christ will rise first." These are those throughout history who faithfully served Him in life and now sleep in the grave. Immediately after them will be Jesus' followers who are alive at the time of His return. Salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ. ". . . For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
Jesus Christ Himself rose from the dead. Writing to the skeptical Corinthians, the apostle Paul reminded them of this fact. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:22-23).
Just as Jesus Christ rose from the dead, so His followers can also look forward to eternal life with Him. In the words of Jesus Christ: "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (John 14:1-3).
Paul wrote the following words to the Romans: ". . . If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit [which] dwells in you . . . For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Romans 8:11, 14).
Paul reminded the Corinthians that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption." He explained to his readers that "we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet [when Christ returns]. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
"For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
But what about non-Christians?
We have already seen that salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ. But does this mean that non-Christians have no opportunity for salvation? Will some people miss out on eternal life simply because they were born into the wrong religion, or grew up in a part of the world that does not know Jesus Christ?
The apostle Peter wrote that God is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). Repentance and baptism are prerequisites for eternal life (Acts 2:38).
We have already seen that only those who are Christ's are given eternal life at His coming. So how does God give others who have never known Jesus Christ the opportunity to receive salvation? And what about those brought up in the Christian faith who did not live long enough to repent and receive the Holy Spirit?
It is comforting to know that God thinks of everybody. In His plan for mankind, all have an opportunity for salvation, for eternal life.
In the book of Revelation, we see a future time that is the fulfillment of Christ's words quoted above. "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment [rulership] was committed to them . . . And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This [i.e., the resurrection at the beginning of the thousand years] is the first resurrection" (Revelation 20:4-5).
Here we see some very profound words. We read again that those in Christ will receive eternal life at His return. But we also read that "this is the first resurrection." We read, too, that "the rest of the dead" —the nonbelievers—"did not live again until the thousand years were finished."
This clearly means there is more than one resurrection. In its haste to embrace the concept of the immortality of the soul, most of the Christian world has overlooked this plain and simple truth.
The next verse simply emphasizes what we have now come to understand: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (verse 6).
So those in the first resurrection receive eternal life immediately at the second coming of Jesus Christ. But those in the second resurrection at the end of the thousand years do not. Why not? Why aren't they treated the same?
The answer is because they are not ready. Remember, eternal life is only possible through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Before we can truly come to Him, we must repent and be baptized; then we receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:11, 14).
In Ezekiel 37 we read of a resurrection quite different from the first. The dead here have been dead for a very long time, as their bones are described as being "very dry" (verse 2).
In this resurrection God says: "I will put sinews [muscles] on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD" (verse 6). This is a resurrection to a second physical existence, at which time those resurrected "shall know that I am the LORD." They will have the opportunity to receive God's Holy Spirit and live (verse 14).
These words are an encouragement to all who have lost loved ones, as they have been for Richard and Emma during their time of great loss. Their strong religious faith has seen them through other trials and will also see them through this one.
Ryan's memorial service
The day after my sermon my wife and I were in Kentucky for Ryan's memorial service and burial. About 200 people were present at the memorial service, making it one of the largest I have ever attended.
It's quite an accomplishment for a young man of 22 to have touched the lives of so many people. It had been more than three years since his graduation from high school, but more than 25 of his high school friends were present.
At the service, we learned that Ryan had written and had published several short stories and articles, one play and one short film script. Who knows what achievements were in store if only he had lived? It was deeply moving to see the loving support and encouragement of so many friends sharing in the family's grief.
Ryan was laid to rest alongside his grandfather on his grandmother's own land in Greenup County. Afterwards my wife and I were invited to eat with the family before returning to Michigan. Both sides of the family were present and one thing was very clear to me: Richard and Emma both have the strong, loving support of a close-knit family.
Ryan was blessed with two sisters, one older and one younger. I already knew the youngest, Elesha, who was a student in my ABC class last year. Richelle, the eldest, and her husband, Will, had just had a baby daughter only 10 weeks before Ryan died. Ryan had doted on his niece, Zandra Belle, and was so proud to be an uncle. With new life comes new hope. Zandra will help get the family through this awful trial.
These observations brought to mind the words of Jesus Christ when a lawyer asked Him the question, "Which is the great commandment in the law?" Jesus' response was: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:36-40).
In these few verses, Jesus told His followers what their priorities should be. We should first love God, which emphasizes the need for a close, personal relationship with our Father in heaven. Then we should love our fellow man, family and friends. This is the way to happiness in this life and eternal life in the next.
Living the two great commandments is also the key to coping with adversity during the difficult periods we inevitably face in life. At some point we all suffer loss. For most it's the loss of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, friends and neighbors. For some, like Richard and Emma, it's losing a child, a loss that is so much harder to bear. At such a time, only faith in God and the loving support of family and friends can ease that pain.
As Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:18, "Therefore comfort one another with these words." GN